Northern and Western Province
After the Eastern Province was completed, we moved on to the Northern and then Western Provinces. Often within a country, there are different subcultures within different regions. I was eager to experience such nuanced differences as we made our way around the country. Once here, I quickly realized that what I thought were the “hills” of Rwanda, where in fact mild elevations of terrain. Here, in the rugged north and west, I saw what was truly meant by “hill”. Our mornings began even earlier, as our clusters were nestled high upon the crests and deep within the valleys of near-mountains.
The morning drive begins in total darkness, as before. It is not long before the tarmac highway gives way to a sandy red road that clings to the side of the mountain. We take the hairpin turns with caution, sounding our approach with a touch of the horn in the off-chance there is a vehicle approaching from the other direction around the bend. Since a vehicle is still a rare occurrence in rural Rwanda, our warning more aptly serves the purpose of alerting the string of villagers that hug the outer of shoulder of the road as they make their way toward their day. The sun climbs over the mountain’s edge, revealing a dense mist lying low like fingers unfurled in the valleys between. As sunrise blossoms into a full dawn, the mist slowly recedes, relinquishing the land to the day. The scene is majestic.
Instead of rice patties in the basin, there are tea plantations. They appear effervescently green against the whiteness of the cloak of fog, and the deep grey of the volcanoes. As we wind up the mountain to the start of our cluster, we realize just our arduous our task will be. We set down the mountain at a fast pace, hoping to stay ahead of the midday heat that will make the trip back up that much more difficult. Due to the remoteness of these villages, I am the first white person even the adults have ever seen. They do not hide their curiosity, as they rub my skin to see if my color changes. One woman declares that Rwanda must be becoming quite developed if a muzungu has come to her village in the mountains, laughing to herself, and a little at me, for making this trek. The cultivated farmland and homesteads etched into the mountainside emulate the jaunty nature and hardy character of the communities we find here. I notice that the greeting is appropriately different here, with each resident shaking my hand vigorously, declaring “makumere, makumere” ( be strong, be strong), and the response being “Tumakumere-ye” ( we’re strong together). They get quite a kick out of watching us trudge up the trails between clusters of homes, gasping for breath and grabbing for bottled water after a mere 20 foot ascent. The children erupt in fits of giggles as they lithely scramble around us in bare feet or flip flops, often carrying a yellow jug full of water at their side if not on their heads. Their mothers scold them while hiding a grin of their own, and give them grilled corn to offer to us. Grateful for the caloric fuel, we munch on the gifted corn as we make our way from house to house. In accepting their food, and entering their homesteads, and allowing their children to accompany us as we lumber along, we’ve innately become a part of their community for the day; there is an uncanny charm in the ease with which the community envelops you, wordlessly decides without deliberation that you are their charge for that day. It’s an experience that I’ve come to expect and to cherish each day that I am assigned another mountainside cluster. In fact, I have come to favor them, despite the hard work they entail. While we won’t see each other again, I know I’ll often revisit the memories of mirth and goodwill that transcended the language and cultural barriers between us. I expect that they, in turn, will remember with fondness the day the muzungu came to town.